Speech to Smith Class
Rita M. Bleiman
First, let me say how honored I am to have this opportunity to speak to you about a program that means so much to me.
The Ada Comstock Scholars Program or, as we called it when I was a student here, “Smith’s Euphemism for Old,” had its 25 Anniversary celebration two years ago. That event was a high for those of us who attended.
When I was in the program – from 1980 – 1984, we were hardly a numerical presence. And there was confusion about who we were and why we were there. I remember a moment that occurred in Southern Fiction my first semester on campus. It happened that there were 6 Adas in this class, a huge percentage back there. And, as we were waiting for Ms. Harries to arrive, a conversation started up between the Adas and a couple of the traditional students, who at first assumed this was parents’ day and they were a little upset that they hadn’t know this so that they could invite their mothers. We explained that we were Adas and soon, one of the traditional students said, “Well, you’re just auditing these classes, aren’t you.” And we said, “OH, no. We’re taking them for credit just like you.” Then another one said, “Well, do you like plan to get a degree?” And we said, ‘Oh, yes, we’re hoping to get degrees, just like you.” And yet another student said, “Do they just let anyone into the program?” And one of the Adas, perhaps a little insulted by the insinuations, said, “no, we have to be accepted, just like you. In fact the only difference between you and us is that we’re not virgins.”
Anyway, this reunion had at least two profound moments for me. The first was that as I was walking around on campus, surrounded by all these women I’d never seen before, I had a very sobering through. As I said, I graduated from the program in 1984 and it struck me that even if I had been a traditional student then, I’d be middle-aged now.
The second occurred at our afternoon panel discussion. These panels are important for the Adas because, unlike your reunions where you keep running into the same women over and over again, we run into more and more strangers. I only know those women who were in the program during the same time period I was in it. But meanwhile the list of alums has been ballooning at the rate of 50 – 60 a year. We’re now up to over 1400. So, these panels – where twelve or so women tell their stories, is one of the few ways for us to get to know Adas from other eras.
At this last reunion, I was listening to the women on the panel and was amazed to hear each and every one of them say, at some point, something like “Smith gave me the confidence to know I could do anything.” Every one of them said that. I glanced around the room to see if anyone else was registering how amazing this statement was, but only I seemed to notice. And so I started wondering: “did everyone here take a course I missed?”
This idea that everyone except me felt they could do everything troubled me to such an extent that I brought it up in almost every social situation I found myself. I have a book club that is made up mostly of Smith-related women. When I mentioned it to them, they said: “Well, of course you can’t do everything, but Smith did give you the confidence to know that you could figure out how to do everything, didn’t it?”
Let me (as we say in the Valley) share a rather humiliating story with you. Shortly after I was elected to the Northampton City Council, I was placed on a committee with representatives from Hatfield. There’s a stretch of developable land that straddles the boarders of these two towns and there were rumors that home depot wanted to buy the property. Hatfield was worried that Northampton would give them the land and then Northampton would get the tax money, but Hatfield would get the traffic. And Northampton has similar concerns about Hatfield. So we decided to form a joint committee and discuss what we would do about this land. At one of the early meetings, everyone was being assigned some task or other to report back at the next meeting. The Mayor looked right at me and said, “Who wants to find out where the sewer lines in Northampton end.” Well, I quickly pretended to be engrossed in the agenda we’d been handed earlier. An agenda that said 1) introductions. 2) discussion. After an embarrassing length of time, the mayor assigned the task to someone else. At the next meeting, the woman who took the task on, reported that she had called the DPW and they told her that the sewers ended at such and such street. I could have done that. But, at the time, I thought that task was going to involve digging.
So, if the Ada program didn’t cure my inferiority complex, and didn’t give me the confidence to know that I could find out whatever answers I needed, what, you might ask, did it do for me?
It changed my life. Well, no. Let me correct myself. The Ada Program did not change my life; Rally Day did. But for you to fully understand this transformation, I need to tell you a little about my background.
I grew up in Texas and spent my elementary years in a series of authoritarian schools in working-class neighborhoods, where the assumption often seemed to be that we were all losers and, but for the law that required compulsory education, we didn’t deserve the time or energy it took the teachers to berate us each day. To make matters worse, my father was the foreman of a construction company that often took jobs as far as two hundred miles from where we resided. In order to keep the family intact we lived in a mobile home and moved wherever his job took us. Often these relocations took place in the middle of the school year. I was regularly joining existing classes where friendships were established and where the curriculum might differ from that I’d left behind. Phonics and sentence diagramming, which were prevalent at one school, might be non-existent at the next. Math and science books sometimes varied, but even when they were the same, there was no predicting where one school might be in that text compared to the other. It was not uncommon for me to enter a class as it was completing the section on …say … fractions, while the school I’d just left might not have even started that. The only invariable aspect of these many schools was that the primary pedagogical philosophy “education by humiliation.”
To be honest, I was not a particularly good student. I spent most of my classroom time in a kind of slack-jawed, glazed-eyed self-hypnotic trance, coming to only when some shrill-voiced teacher shouted at me. I had the nagging suspicion that my classmates had read something I hadn’t, which was certainly true if any of them had ever opened one of the textbooks. By the fifth grade I was getting by – barely — on sheer imagination. I had been told so often that I was stupid, lazy and bad that I pretty much accepted those labels and planned my life accordingly. I looked at it this way: I was short and dumb; when the time came, I would have an enormous dating pool.
Even back then there were signs (had anyone cared to notice) that I was not, in fact, stupid. I read profusely: Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, and comic books, to be sure, but also classics like Anna Karenina, The Scarlet Letter, and Great Expectations. By junior high I started reading psychology books. By high school I belonged to both the Literary Guild and the Book of the Month Club and spent most of my money on hardback books which I used to line the walls of my tiny room. I also loved musicals. Though I never got to New York, I knew the plots and owned the albums of every show that opened on Broadway.
When John F. Kennedy ran for President, I renewed my interest in politics. I say renewed because back when I was in Kindergarten, I had been aware of the Eisenhower/Stevenson race. My father, a union man, was supporting Stevenson. At that time I asked him what the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans were and he said, “The Republicans are for the rich people; the Democrats help the working class.” This meant, I believed, that if Stevenson won the election, there would be a little bag of money on our front porch the next morning. I could hardly sleep election night, but when I woke –earlier than usual — I knew the second I opened our door that Eisenhower was President.
As with many from my generation, Kennedy activated what would turn out to be a life-long interest in politics. When he was running for President I was a freshman at a high school, which was across town from where we lived. I had to take two city buses to get there each day. I would hop on the bus and race to the back seat where I would hold Kennedy/Johnson bumper stickers up to the window and try to elicit a thumbs up or down sign from the commuters. This was Dallas and often I got a completely unexpected gesture instead.
I was a couple of blocks away from the School Book Depository the day Kennedy was killed. I had just watched his motorcade pass by.
After that I became obsessed with politics. But unlike my more radical counterparts, I aligned myself with the liberal wing of the Democratic party joining almost every grass roots organization I could find. I should point out that in Dallas in the 60s the liberal wing of the Democratic party was a very tiny group and so by the age of 18 or 19, I was hanging out with the likes of Ronnie Dugger, Ralph Yarborough and a completely outrageous housewife by the name of Ann Richards. If anyone had told me back then that she would become Governor of Texas, I would probably still be doubled over laughing.
Though I had never had the slightest interest in higher education, I applied to Tyler Junior College – not because I planned to get a degree, but because I wanted to be an Apache Belle. The Apache Belles, a girls precision drill team, is world-famous (except in New England where no one seems to have ever heard of it). I lasted one semester, dropping out after the Bells more or less told me I was not their “type”.
Once college was out of the way, there was nothing left to do but move to Washington, D.C. With only two hundred dollars in my bank account, I headed east. My goal was to one day be the personal secretary to the president of the United States. With that in mind, I hit Capitol Hill with a list of six Senators I’d agree to work for. I was not going to waste my time with someone who, unlike myself, didn’t have a prayer of making it to the White House. Though it took me several months, I did eventually land a job in the offices of Senator Walter F. Mondale and followed him to the Executive Office Building when he became Vice President.
During all this time, I took occasional courses at area colleges and met and married my husband.
One summer, several years and one child after we married, we were driving to Maine to visit some friends when our car broke down in Enfield, Connecticut. It was a Friday and the mechanic couldn’t order parts until Monday. We rented a car, but stayed in the area. That’s when we stumbled onto Northampton. As soon as my husband finished his residency, we moved to the Valley.
Just after I entered Smith, the college declared the Adas a class. This meant we would have our own student officers, would have AC after our names instead of a year and, most importantly for me, it turned out, we could participate in the Rally Day show. When audition notices appeared, I was the first to sign up. At an organizational meeting, I volunteered to help with one-liners and jokes. Two other women said they would write the show; another said she’d try to direct. I was exhilarated about the prospects of performing on stage.
Before the second meeting, the two writers and the director had a falling out, (the Adas can be a tough bunch) and all three resigned from the project. I showed up for rehearsal with a legal pad full of jokes and a new pair of tap shoes. There was talk of abandoning the show altogether. After all, the Adas were busy. Didn’t have time for such silliness. Faced with the loss of the only show in the world that would let me in its chorus line, I volunteered to take it on.
I’d never attempted creative writing in my life (and frankly, I was terrified about what I’d promised) but I knew I could be funny and I knew the words to every song in every musical ever written. Once I figured out the rules of parody (change as few words as possible) everything fell into place. All I had to do after that was string the songs together with some one-liners. Directing could have been a problem, but the cast pitched in with suggestions and we ended up just letting everyone do what they wanted. The only thing missing was choreography. Thank God for the Apache Belles! I remembered every routine I’d learned that one semester at Tyler Junior College. Finding coordinated Adas was tricky and forget about high kicks or precision drills. We had a show. It’s wasn’t great, but it worked.
I was so electrified by this dinky accomplishment that I signed up for Playwrighting the next semester. I had no interest in writing real plays, I just wanted to write a better Rally Day show.
It worked. The second show was much better. Of course, there were requirements in the playwrighting class and I could hardly submit the Rally Day show for credit, so at the same time I wrote a short play about my father’s death. I assumed the competition was lacking when it won the Five College Denis Johnston Playwrighting Award.
Spurred on more by my interest in Rally Day than in legitimate theater, I signed up for another playwrighting course. Again, our show was better. Again, my play won the Denis Johnston contest.
As graduation approached I felt like the victim of term limits. How would I spend my time once I couldn’t run Rally Day anymore? What would I say when asked “What do you do?” if I couldn’t say I was an Ada? I was still writing plays. I considered telling people I was a writer, but in the Valley that’s like saying you’re a resident. In a frantic effort to do something worthwhile (let’s face it, Northampton is not teeming with professional opportunities) I reverted to my original profession and ran for the Northampton School Committee.
For the next several years, I balanced my time among child rearing, community involvement and writing. Longing for my Rally Day Glory Days, I wrote skits and plays for any organization planning a fundraiser.
I also wrote ten plays and one musical, most of which I produced in the area. I sent these manuscripts everywhere – to contests, to theaters, to agents. They were all rejected. Some rejections were harsh; some were encouraging. After ten years, I decided to abandon theater and try something different.
I started writing humorous opinion pieces and had some success, but eventually, I found the ordeal of always trying to sell myself exhausting. I dropped out of public life, became reclusive and wrote a novel.
I showed my manuscript to a novelist friend, who liked it enough to recommend it to his agent. The agent called me a week later and was very enthusiastic about the possibilities. But, after three years of submitting it to every major publishing house and receiving scores of rejection letter that said, “Very funny book, the marketing people say it won’t make enough money,” he gave up.
I wrote another novel: it wasn’t nearly as good as the first one. I started a third, and then went on sabbatical and stopped writing – supposedly for three months. It’s now been three years.
Overwhelmed with the nagging guilt of not writing, I managed to get elected to the City Council. Now when people say, “What are you writing these days,” I can honestly say, “I don’t have time to write anything any more.”
So, here I am. Pretty much back where I was before the Ada Comstock Program changed my life. In view of the fact that my writing career was not that professionally successful and has now been at least temporarily abandoned, what was the point of my stint at Smith…especially since I’m happily doing now what I would have probably ended up doing without Smith.
Aside from the social and intellectual status we all have just by being Smith graduates, I have no regrets for the 15 years I spent reading rejection letters. I am able to take pride in those notes from editors that say, “I actually laughed out loud while reading this.” I am moved when someone tells me, years after the fact that something from one of my plays still sticks in his or her mind. And, of course, I love it when someone says they stumbled on some little poem or short story I published (for free) in a journal so small that I believed only those in the table of contents ever even knew it existed.
It’s not just that Smith taught me how to write – though the college certainly did that. But, for the most part, my writing voice is the speaking voice I’ve always had. What Smith really taught me was that this voice had merit and that piece of knowledge is priceless.